THE FUTURE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL THEATRE
New Tuners Theatre
at the Theatre Building
When the composer of such musical-comedy staples as Bye Bye Birdie and Annie comes up with a show called The Future of the American Musical Theatre, it sounds kind of serious. But in this brief and breezy one-act chamber opera, Charles Strouse has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, beginning with the formidable title. The results are quite charming and frequently funny, though aimed perhaps a little too directly at aficionados of musical theater to have wide audience appeal.
The first of many jokes in The Future is that the play is concerned with the past. The setting is the stage of a new, multimillion-dollar performing arts center at a university in Tallahassee, Florida. The center is being inaugurated with one of those dreadful panel discussions: in this case about a 15th-anniversary retrospective on the making of a legendary Broadway musical putatively (and ironically) titled The Grass Is Greener. This fictive landmark of show business, we are told, was the first Broadway show to fully integrate dance, homosexuality, abortion, and 12-tone music--and without an intermission! (The joke on A Chorus Line is pretty obvious, though Strouse has such works as West Side Story, Cabaret, and Company in mind too.)
Assembled for the panel are The Grass Is Greener's creators--a collection of show-biz stereotypes that are nonetheless drawn from bits and pieces of very true theatrical personalities and lore. There is the venerable, once-brilliant, now-decrepit director who, behind the glowing genius reputation, was a shrewd and devious deal maker (George Abbott and Josh Logan come most quickly to mind); the flamboyant composer now making his mark as a great conductor but unable to recapture his early songwriting touch (Leonard Bernstein is the obvious model); the lyricist whose businesslike drabness clashes with his collaborator's showiness; the slick yuppie producers; the fey designer; the success-obsessed choreographer; the "I-gave-it-all-up-for-stardom" diva; and, most amusingly, the wry, underappreciated scriptwriter ("Just stay out of everybody's way," he was told by the director, who also cut himself in for 60 percent of the author's 2 percent royalties). Under the officiously gracious questioning of the panel moderator, these folks recount the making of The Grass Is Greener in glowing, rose-colored terms, and then step forward to privately share the real dirt seething in their minds (another affectionately parodic gesture toward A Chorus Line).
None of this is deep or revelatory stuff, of course. The paranoid predictions of bad reviews, the bittersweet failed romances, the opening-night exhilaration--all this is pretty familiar material. The few intriguing curveballs are left frustratingly unexplored after a few quick references--for example, an affair between the gay choreographer and the married lyricist, or the composer's claim that writing with a partner is "impossible." This last matter is particularly tantalizing because Strouse himself, whose most popular work was written in collaboration with lyricists, has lately chosen to write both music and words.
But despite these shortcomings--and bearing in mind that this is a world premiere of a work surely still in progress--The Future is a diverting little entertainment, performed with engaging charm and skill by a very young cast. (The actors' youth is, in truth, something the audience has to overlook to accept the obvious maturity of the characters.) Jennifer Nees is exceptionally strong as the diva who can't help singing her big number just one more time--she's got a beautiful voice and is genuinely poignant in a role that could shrivel into stereotyped pathos; Matt McDonald, also an excellent singer, is quite droll as the wisecracking librettist; Steve Childerston and Colette Hawley as the producers, William Patterson as the composer, Paul Pement as the choreographer, Nathan Rankin as the deceptively straight-looking lyricist, and Larry Wilson as the designer are all fun to watch and listen to.
The Future is the second collaboration between Strouse and the New Tuners troupe. Last season's fairy-tale musical Nightingale was, despite a strong production, bothersome because Strouse's efforts at writing seriously operatic music sounded strained and self-conscious. Here, though, the often dissonant, rhythmically complex score--clearly influenced by the chamber operas of Menotti and Bernstein--is self-assured and appropriate to the lyrics and the characters; Dan Sticco's musical direction illuminates the intricate textures in Strouse's instrumental and choral writing, and Steve Scott's stage direction cleanly highlights the character interactions that form the basis of the story. At just over an hour long (I leave it to you whether you want to pay standard theater prices for so short an evening), The Future of the American Musical Theatre never taxes or bores, and frequently delights.